In America, most of us conjure an image of a beautiful Chinese woman as a modest figure straight out of a history book. But, perceptions can often be wrong. Just how much do the past and present in a rapidly changing China reveal about country's standards of beauty?
The Four Great Beauties are four Chinese women from ancient times renowned for their beauty. They lived in four different dynasties, each hundreds of years apart. In chronological order, they are:
2. Wang Zhaojun (c. 1st century BC, Western Han Dynasty),
3. Diaochan (c. 3rd century, Late Eastern Han/Three Kingdoms period) and
4. Yang Guifei (719–756, Tang Dynasty)
The pursuit of a tiny waistline dates back to the Zhou dynasty and King Chu Ling's preference for women with slender torsos. His very singular standards for physical beauty ultimately caused the deaths of many of his subordinates.
A poem from the 5th century BC chronicled that droves of women engaged in extreme waist-cinching and eventually starved to death in efforts to appeal to the emperor. The phrase chu yao xian xi – which translates to "a woman's thin, delicate midriff" — derived from Chu's obsession.
And now modern China has been overtaken by a fitness craze.
Dedication to a more toned and muscular form seems at odds with traditional beauty standards in China. Yet, it may surprise Americans to know that a 2003 survey published by the Journal of Hebei Institute of Physical Education, “an almost-emaciated, willowy physique” was cited as the prevalent ideal body among the 1,000 working female participants.
(Venus Wong. “Why The "Belly Button Challenge" Is A Dangerous Fad.” refinery29.com. June 17, 2015.)
In fact, in China, the fitness industry was expected to generate $5.1 billion last year, according to a research report by global business intelligence leader ISIBWorld. The industry has grown steadily — by about 13% a year since 2010. And, now both the Wall Street Journal and the South China Morning Post have reported that Chinese women are seen as a prime target demographic for gyms and athletic-apparel businesses looking to bulk up their own bottom lines.
(“Why Women In China Are Obsessed With This Workout Trend. yahoo.com. February 3, 2016.)
Skinny and Baifumei
Most clothing sold within China is one-size-fits-all. The exceptions to the rule are usually labeled several sizes bigger than their American counterparts (U.S. size 4 marked L or XL in China). It is reported that the qualities of the ideal Chinese woman are perfectly summed up by the slang baifumei, meaning: “pale-skinned, rich, and beautiful.”
An Internet survey conducted by Sohu reported that the physical standards for a baifumei are to stand 5'2" to 5'7" tall and weigh between 99 and 120 pounds. For many Chinese women, the motivation for weight loss does not stem from the need for a healthier lifestyle, but rather, from the desire to fit into prettier clothes and become part of a coveted social group.
So, whatever the connection between the past and the present, now enter the “knee selfies” and other new so-called “devil body challenges.” The name "devil body challenge" comes from Chinese mythology about evil spirits who change into beautiful, long-limbed sirens to seduce and entrap mortal men.
Instagram photos on social media are driving a Chinese ideal for skinniness and all things petite to the extent that any method of affirming thinness has appeal, no matter how ridiculous it may seem. Thousands of photos of Chinese women measuring how thin they are with iPhones and Chinese currency are currently circulating on the Internet.
In fact, the trend of measuring one's body with objects has been applauded in some media as a sign of fitness. Two of China’s state-run newspapers came out in favor of the trend, referring to the "challenges"as "fitness tests."
The tests seem extreme. For example, Chines females are uploading pictures of themselves applying lipstick with their arm twisted behind their heads to prove they have small faces.
Another “fitness test” is a “belly button challenge," photos which shows girls wrapping their arms around their backs to prove the size of their minuscule waists. A coveted "A4 waist" is a rough equivalent to a U.S. extra small in apparel.
One of the most recent "challenges" encourage young women to wrap a 100-yuan bill around their wrist to prove the ends overlap. Measuring just over 6 inches in length, the red bill is one of the larger gauges people have used.
Other “devil body challenges” include girls showing that their legs are no wider than an iPhone 6 at the knees or balancing five coins on their collar bones to show they protrude. If they accomplish the iPhone 6 "challenge," it means both of their legs together are no wider than 6 inches at the knees.
But, with all the popularity, many Chinese activists, fashion editors and psychologists are condemning such contests for fostering unhealthy views of attractiveness.
“These abnormal standards could trigger depression or even eating disorders in women … these are not the correct values to be spreading,” said Su Shu, lifestyle editor of Cosmopolitan magazine in China.
At the same time demand for plastic surgery is also on the rise, increasing 200% every year by some counts. A common procedure is an eyelid lift to create a more Western appearance.
"It’s sad that they believe there is pressure to look a certain way," said Luciana Rosu-Siezu, interim executive director at the Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association in Windsor, Canada, the Windsor Star reported. "We are killing ourselves and pushing ourselves to those limits and for who? It’s important to just be yourself."
(Hannah Gardner. “Too skinny? Chinese women measure knees with iPhone 6.” USA Today. April 06, 2016.)
In the words of an East Asian girl's blog: “Take the idiom 冰肌玉骨 bingji yugu, meaning 'ice flesh and jade bones'. Sounds like a stone-hearted, cold-blooded person, right? It actually refers to a beautiful woman, 'jade' and 'ice' both being white and pure. Beauty and fair skin are hard ideas to divorce when they are synonymous.”
And, the desire for pale skin has arguably become even more acute in the age of social media and the booming Chinese beauty industry. Whitening products account for 70% of online searches for cosmetics in China, according to search giant Baidu.
“There is a strong standard of beauty in China, and it requires you to be as white as possible, with big eyes,” said Thibaud André, consultant at Daxue Consulting in Beijing.
The ultimate baifumei is actress Fan Bingbing, adored and emulated for her translucent white skin, large eyes and “melon seed” (oval-shaped) face.
“The big difference is that we want to be cute. You will see women pretending to be teenagers when they are grown-ups,” said Shanghai Pathways culture expert Janny Chyn. “Pretending to be cute is never offensive. It’s more controversial to be sexy. If you’re cute, no one can disapprove.”
(“What Selfies in America vs. China Can Tell Us About Beauty Standards.” mic.com and yahoo.com. January 27, 2016.)
China clings tightly to some beauty standards of old such as the preference for tiny waists and white skin. However, with the cultural revolution in full swing, China is embracing the fitness and beauty industries with a passion. For many Chinese, skinny, cute, devil-body sirens are the epitome of modern beauty.
Being pretty is more than sexual attraction to many Chinese women. To them, it means getting a good job. Akin to America? Perhaps. But in China, the necessity seems doubled. Anthropologist Dr. Wen Hua, PhD, says, “Many Chinese women view an attractive appearance as a set of tangible and portable personal assets that that are convertible into financial or social capital.” Beauty has more of a serious social-cultural construction in China than in America.
Yet, to close, I have to acknowledge the age-old standards of beauty and perfection.
“There is a standard of Chinese beauty: be beautiful without and intelligent within. That is to say, as a beauty, a woman must be both pretty and bright. A perfect face is not enough; it must be accompanied by a bright brain. Queen Yangguifei (the queen of King Li Longji in Tang Dynasty) was deeply loved by King Li Longji, not only for her beauty, but also for her talent for music and dance.
“Music, chess, calligraphy and painting were the basic standard of gifted female.”
(“Chinese Philosophy of Beauty.” cultural-china.com. 2014.)